Frenzy Highlights Lack of Knowledge About TB

The recent travel plans of Andrew Speaker, the man afflicted with a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis, sparked public outcry and a bit of media hysteria — much of it caused by a lack of understanding about the disease. The situation hits home for commentator Amy Nicole Blaszyk, who recently had a positive TB test.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

One person who knows what it's like to get a TB diagnosis is NPR production assistant Amy Blaszyk.

She never had active TB or any symptoms, just a positive skin test. But she says that was scary enough.

AMY BLASZYK: There's an audible silence when I tell people I have tested positive for tuberculosis. Suddenly, even to my nearest and dearest, I have become an untouchable. The other night at a friend's house, the conversation eventually turned to Andrew Speaker, the man afflicted with the drug-resistant strain of TB.

The world seems to be holding its breath, waiting to see how many people he has infected. The fear surrounding TB irritates me, so I tried to educate my friend and shared my experience. Silence - then he jokingly pointed toward the door.

But this is isn't a joke. It's the standard. I'm actually afraid to tell people. For years, I received routine TB testing, a formality when working with kids. I never thought anything of it. Employees would line up, the staff would poke each of us in the inside of the arm and we'd be on our way.

But 48 hours after I was tested in 2001, small bumps began to appear at the test site. I couldn't believe it. TB still existed? I racked my brain, trying to think about where I could've been exposed. It seems so Dark Ages. My reaction was equally dark. I was sure I was going to die. I cried a lot. I felt ruined.

I broke the news to my family first. One person expressed concern about being more vulnerable to catching it due to having a medical condition that suppresses the immune system. My grandmother, however, scoffed at the whole thing.

As a nurse who'd had a positive skin test, she'd never had active TB. She remains one of the healthiest people I know. For the most part, people just don't understand TB. There's a difference between latent TB infection and contagious TB disease, which is usually accompanied by symptoms like coughing.

Having a positive skin test indicated only one thing: I had, at some point, been exposed to TB bacteria. It's possible my body fought it off, which is why I never developed symptoms. It could've been a false positive - that happens. Bottom line: a chest X-ray and other tests showed absolutely no signs of TB disease.

The possibility remained that the germ could be hanging out in my body. I clearly didn't have the disease. I wasn't sick and I couldn't infect others. But without preventative measures, that germ could trigger the active and infectious form of the bacteria. To prevent that, the local health department provided me with a six-month treatment of antibiotics to eliminate the infection.

The doctors say the germs should now be eradicated from my body. What hasn't been eradicated is the stigma, the ignorance, even from me. How many people watching the news coverage think maybe I and others like me should be isolated in some way? We don't pose a threat. I had a positive TB skin test. That's all. I took a six-month course of antibiotics, and now, get regular chest X-rays just to be sure.

It turns out it wasn't a death sentence for me at all, nor should it be a source of concern for you. You can share the same air, drink from the same glass, even kiss me, and I promise you'll never get TB.

SIEGEL: Amy Blaszyk is a production assistant at NPR. You can find out more about TB, how it spreads and how the bacteria become resistant to drugs at npr.org.

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